Revisiting India's forgotten battle of WWII Kohima-Imphal, the Stalingrad of the East

Ranjan Pal-Courtesy CNN
In a cataclysmic year during which the whole world has been beset by Covid-19, gone almost unnoticed is the 75th anniversary of the end of the last great catastrophe to befall our planet -- WWII.
But even within the context of that extraordinary war, there are amazing battles that have been forgotten.
One such slice of history is the Battle for Kohima-Imphal, which was a decisive turning point in the war. It ended with the first major defeat suffered by Japanese forces in the Burma theater and thwarted their ambitious plans to invade India.
In fact, in 2013 it was voted by the National War Museum as Britain's greatest battle ahead of the more celebrated engagements of D-Day and Waterloo.
"The victory was of a profound significance because it demonstrated categorically to the Japanese that they were not invincible," said historian Robert Lyman at the museum, following the announcement. "This was to be very important in preparing the entire Japanese Nation to accept defeat."
The two North Eastern States of Manipur and Nagaland and their capitals of Kohima and Imphal formed the critical frontier for British India in their war against Japan on the Burmese front.
A key route ran from the British supply base at Dimapur through Kohima up on a ridge in the Naga Hills and down to Imphal in a small encircled plain in Manipur and from there into Burma, the country known today as Myanmar.
"Operation U-Go" was an audacious plan by the Japanese military command to capture this road by using three divisions to attack simultaneously south and north of Imphal and to directly take Kohima. Had it succeeded it would have given them the critical springboard they needed to launch an all-out attack on British India.
Today's visitors to Kohima will see no traces of that long-ago battle.
The urban sprawl of the town has covered up the hills over which it was fought.
But there is a World War II museum (entry Rs 50) located within the Naga Heritage Village about 10 kilometers south of town.
Displays include a diverse range of weaponry, tabletop models of battlefields, soldiers' uniforms and historic photographs from both warring armies, though little attention has been paid to organization or detail.
Even the interesting war documentary that plays in the background is spoiled through poor acoustics and badly positioned display cases, which obstruct the screen.
A visit to the Kohima War Cemetery, however, is not to be missed. Beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, visitors will find the plots of British and Indian servicemen who lost their lives in the defense of Kohima, numbering 2,340 in all.
The British and Muslim soldiers are commemorated through simple elegant bronze plaques laid out in neat rows and terraces, while the names of their Hindu and Sikh compatriots who were cremated are inscribed on a separate memorial at the top of the cemetery.
It is impossible not to be moved by the quiet beauty of the place and the heartrending messages on the gravestones from the families of the fallen heroes.
Remembering the battle
The Japanese attack caught the British by surprise as their High Command had not expected the enemy to move so swiftly and in such large numbers through the thick jungle and mountainous terrain.
They cut the Kohima-Imphal road and quickly surrounded the British garrison defending Kohima.
Over 16 crucial days beginning on April 4, 1944, the much smaller British Indian force of 2,500 men held off 15,000 Japanese troops who had laid siege to the Kohima ridge.
In some of the bitterest close-quarter fighting of WWII, the battle raged the length of the ridge with the Japanese gradually pushing back the British defensive perimeter on Garrison Hill inch by bloody inch.
At one point the opposing troops were so close that they were dug in on either side of the tennis court belonging to the District Commissioner's bungalow.
Notably, the cemetery was built over the exact site of the battle on Garrison Hill and you can still see the lines of the famous court where the opposing sides faced off.
Raghu Karnad, author of "Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War," said of the battle: "The DC's tennis court served as the killing ground for a new sort of desperate and bloody match. If Kohima fell, all of eastern India might fall to the Japanese occupation -- if Kohima stood, it would begin the rollback of the great Japanese advance on the Asian mainland."
Relief came at the 11th hour with elements of the British 2nd Division breaking through the Japanese roadblocks to reach the beleaguered Kohima garrison on April 20.

(To be contd)